Rescuing data from an Android phone with broken touchscreen and disabled USB debugging

December 16th, 2016

Last week I dropped my Nexus 5 once again, this time for good. I had cracked and broken the top glass before, but the display and the touchscreen kept on working. This time, the touchscreen no longer registers touches, though luckily the display still works somewhat. On a device with no trackball, touchpad, or keyboard, a broken touchscreen is problematic.

Unfortunately, I had been lazy about keeping my phone properly backed up. There wasn’t that much unique stuff on it, but I always meant to backup apps and app data, and to eventually root and reflash someday — but never got around to it. Consequently I didn’t have USB debugging turned on, or a computer cleared for debugging.

Generally, the way to control and back up Android devices is from your desktop computer, using a USB connection and software called adb (Android Debug Bridge, see adb docs). However, USB debugging must be first turned on in Android settings, and since Android 4.2.2, the phone asks to confirm debugging access from each computer that attempts to connect. Normally the confirmation is done using the phone touchscreen. Oops.

Here are my notes on what I did to eventually gain USB debugging access. I did not require root or fastboot. I needed a computer to act as the adb host and a few accessories: a USB OTG cable, a USB mouse, and a Bluetooth keyboard.

Learning from my trouble, I recommend people running Android 4.4.3 or higher and interested in maintaining access to their device to enable USB debugging ahead of time.

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Degooglifying, step 1: Cleaning up

December 15th, 2016

I’ve been looking to reduce my dependence on Google for a while (see my posts archive on degooglifying), but so far that amounted to figuring out how dependent I was on Android. I’ve now finally started working on actually reducing my Google footprint a bit. Here’s some notes on my process.

My goal isn’t to never again visit a Google website or service, but I will be happy if they end up collecting less information about me, whether through Analytics (which I already block), Gmail, or Maps.

Steps so far were: take stock (I am unorganized, so by far most important), delete stuff I no longer use, and start archiving things in my actual archives rather than haphazardly in various Google services, particularly Gmail.

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Build This Idea: Micro-Grids for Peer-to-Peer Energy

December 12th, 2016

This is an instalment of Build This Idea, where I write about stuff I want to exist. Treat it like an idea store; if you like something, take it; if you make it, let me know — I’ll be delighted to check it out. Today, a rather big ask for unifying several existing concepts and services.

London has canals. On canals there are moored houseboats. Until recently many houseboats had a diesel generator for their own electricity. Now it is common to see a photovoltaic panel or three supplementing that, and I’ve seen a few wind mini-turbines (though I’m a bit skeptical if they produced more than needed to light a lightbulb).

A thing that is not so great about this is that each boat has their generator, and they aren’t connected. There are many downsides to grids, but if you’re running a heavy load (kettle, oven) and your neighbour isn’t, a grid is a handy thing to have. A grid lets you pool resources, essentially timeshare.

But we don’t always need country-wide grids. Much of the averaging and pooling is feasible on neighbourhood or city scale. Traditional large-scale grids are most useful with centralized generation, and actually have problems with independently operated small-scale generation.

Instead, we should connect the houseboats with micro-grids. This should also be done in other cases where people use electricity in geographically close but off-grid situations, such as parked RVs, camped tents, or clusters of cabins. This would help with temporary heavy loads: your panel or battery might not be able to support a kettle or a vacuum on their own, but together with those of two of your neighbours it might. Then once your kettle is off, your panel can lend electricity to your neighbour. Try to smooth the peaks a little. Keep a running balance of how much electricity was lent and borrowed by everyone to ensure fairness.

To further motivate peak smoothing, have a surge multiplier that rewards providing energy to the grid at peak times by giving out extra credit. During a lower-demand period, the credit can be spent by receiving more energy than lent out at peak. (This is essentially demand management by economic means.)

A rough implementation idea: each houseboat or tent or RV is a system, identified by a unique key (possibly something similar to public/private key). New systems joining a grid (with a new key not previously seen by the grid) are required to lend some energy before being allowed to borrow. This privileges early movers and existing micro-grid members, but also avoids regenerating keys to repeatedly get free energy. Wireless power transfer guided by low-power beacons would make it super cool, but of course there would still be a lot of value in wired connections. Systems can connect and disconnect as they like or need, but will find it advantageous to keep connected as much as possible, to build up credit they can spend later.

Another reason this would be interesting is it sets up a new “edition” of an electrical grid where there was no grid before. If all you had before was your diesel generator, you are more likely to accept limitations on electricity use than if you’re coming from a grid-connected point of view, where this setup might be a downgrade. Further, a secondary grid where the expectations are different can be a good illustration of the concepts of demand management and peak smoothing for people who are used to current constant grids. In software terms, this is a new, rewritten “edition” that doesn’t have some features, as opposed to a new “version” removing features.

The new edition should optimally be built to be a little more resilient and better able to deal with fluctuating supply and demand. Current systems are built assuming 100% reliability, and weird things happen if grid power goes out or voltage drops. However, many of modern household uses of electricity are not particularly time-critical: increasing amounts of electronics have built-in batteries, and in many cases it doesn’t really matter if a fridge or heater turns on five minutes earlier or later. It would then be good to have smaller-scale dispersed generation as well as storage, with house, vehicle, and electronics batteries all capable of being charged or discharged as needed.

Android apps I use, November 2016

November 1st, 2016

Last year I wrote a self-indulgent post about Android apps I use, with some details and explanations. It’s time for an update!

As much as it is an indulgent list, it has served a secondary purpose: the act of looking at the device and compiling a list encourages me to consider the apps I’m listing, and whether I really use them or need them. As mentioned in the original post, I’ve been wary of platform lock-in and dependency. I’ve also increasingly attempted to remove non-essential notifications and temptations for idle browsing.

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Ontario, point form

October 27th, 2016

I visited southern Ontario last month, making stops in Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Welland. I previously lived there for ten years, but I’ve been away for a few years now. I took notes on what I missed and didn’t miss, what I found surprising or annoying.

So then, in observed order, annoyances:

  • Parkades / parking garages are a pain to drive out of. Do drivers really put up with it regularly?
  • 2 or 3 cars on nearly every Mississauga driveway
  • The Toronto practice of sending one or two full-size fire trucks to every 911 emergency call. At busy locations like Dundas Square it means huge trucks rolling up several times during a weekend, disrupting everything around them and barely fitting in the space, often to respond to someone fainting from heat. This was one thing I was very impressed with in London: they have several classes of response vehicles ranging from motorcycles (a small motorcycle or scooter being the absolute fastest way to get around inner London) to smaller cars before getting to full-size ambulances, and North-American-sized fire trucks are rarely seen.
  • Similarly, shops in downtown Toronto being resupplied from tractor-trailer articulated container trucks, usually parked more or less illegally. (Often this is a sign of a food shop or restaurant being supplied by a larger catering company.) I understand the economic idea, but it is completely unsuitable to urban scale even in Toronto.
  • Lifted pickup trucks, and pickups in the city in general. I don’t have anything against vehicles being used for a job, but an oddly high amount of pickups I saw around were pristinely clean and weren’t carrying anything in the cargo area.
  • Loud exhausts:
    • Racing motorcycles
    • Harleys
    • Pickup trucks that sound like Harleys
  • Cheques are still a thing. Come on.
  • Window screens. They make me feel like I’m in a mini-prison.
  • This is super-specific, but the previously wonderful Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto has closed.

And the nice things I wasn’t quite expecting I’d miss so such:

  • Multiculturalism on the subway, and in just about any other public space
  • Free toilets
  • Widespread water fountains
  • The St. Lawrence / Esplanade neighbourhood – probably the most European part of Toronto
  • The sun is strong. This is a bit silly, but after two years at 51-52 degrees latitude, I really noticed the sun being stronger at 43 degrees.
  • The CN Tower is still nice. This is personal since it reminds me of my time in Toronto. But still.
  • The AGO is legitimately pretty great. (Once you get over charging for admission to a museum… but not everywhere can be London.)